Chapter 8: The Culture of Law Enforcement

8.3 Skepticism and Cynicism

Cynicism, as mentioned previously, is a major negative component of the police subculture. Cynicism should not be confused with skepticism as they are vastly different. Skepticism refers to critical thinking, which is what we should all strive for. It allows us to question commonly held beliefs that may not be true. It forms the basis of scientific inquiry that has enabled humanity to evolve from a reliance on superstition to an ability to address difficult questions and problems in society using research and reasoned approaches. Skepticism is especially important in law enforcement as it is a critical component of being an objective investigator, one who is willing to view issues from a neutral perspective. According to Kurtz (2010, p.13) “a skeptic is one who is willing to question any claim to truth, asking for clarity in definition, consistency in logic, and adequacy of evidence.” The ability to question any claims of truth is critical for all law enforcement officers who are confronted on a daily basis with people who are disinclined to tell the truth in order to protect their own interests. Furthermore, investigators should strive for empirical evidence that eliminates a biased conclusion that can potentially lead to wrongful accusations and convictions.

Skepticism is endangered when we have difficulty distinguishing between “questioning truth” and “questioning and rejecting truth. Kurtz (2010) defines this as “nihilistic skepticism.” In essence, this is the assertion that nothing should be believed as truth, because it is unprovable. As such, nihilistic skepticism is based upon subjectivity. Nihilistic skepticism is essentially skepticism in which there is no basis for “objective moral judgment” (Kurtz, 2010, p.15).

Cynicism is similar to nihilistic skepticism; however, it embodies an element of pessimism toward everyday occurrences that may ignore the objective truth. Cynicism can include a negative response to morality that illustrates a contempt for community standards. Truth is unimportant to a cynic, and the distrust that is exhibited by the cynic belies the facts. Specifically, law enforcement officers often see themselves in an “us versus them” environment in which officers are attacked from all sides of society. Officers routinely say that the biggest stress they face is not on the streets from dangerous people but in the office before they make it to the streets. This notion is, to a degree, cynical. The objective truth is that the streets are not as safe as the office; however, officers ignore this due to their frustration in dealing with management.

Another example of cynicism is the belief some officers have that the only way to remove sex-trade workers from the area they patrol is to verbally abuse them to the point they feel threatened.  In cynical officers’ minds, such behaviour is acceptable even though it may be contrary to community standards and their agency’s values.

Sunahara (2002) draws a further link between cynicism, alienation, and estrangement from management and departmental policy, suggesting that police officers who become alienated are likely to become disengaged from performing their duties and could slip into unethical behaviour. The cause of alienation is unclear, raising the possibility that cynicism begets alienation, or that alienation begets cynicism.

Graves (1996, as cited in Sunahara, 2002, p.12) describes police cynicism as “an attitude of ‘contemptuous distrust of human nature and motives.’ A cynic expects nothing but the worst in human behaviour.” The feeling of alienation stems from this attitude as officers shield themselves from those they believe they cannot trust and from those who are potentially dangerous to them and their families. This feeling is likely the result of working in a negative environment in which officers see and do things that mainstream society is not privy to. Police officers often talk about happenings on the job that “you couldn’t write in a movie script, because they are so unbelievable.” Much of what police officers see is rarely talked about in mainstream society because it is alarming and disturbing. Yet officers are confronted with these issues not only on a daily basis but multiple times a day, depending on where the officer works. It is little wonder that officers in this environment tend to want to alienate themselves from society, and little wonder why alienation, at the very least, isn’t coupled with cynicism.


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8.3 Skepticism and Cynicism by Steve McCartney and Rick Parent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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